FROM THE FRONT PAGE
Biting cold unleashes havoc in Uttarakhand
People see conspiracy behind holding polls
in such freezing cold
Election campaign still to begin in 60 per cent
of the constituencies
Vote percentage is sure to decline substantially
By Pramod Kumar from Uttarakhand
As feared at the time of poll announcement on December 24, the incessant heavy snowfall accompanied by rain, landslide and biting cold for over two weeks hobbled the electioneering in Uttarakhand. The State is going to polls on January 30, but the election campaign is still to begin in 60 per cent of the constituencies, mostly situated above the height of 6,000 ft. Forget the party workers, even candidates are unable to step out of their homes for canvassing in the hill areas.
The snowfall has crippled the life in areas including Chakrata, Mussoorie, Dhanaulti, Joshimath, Auli, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Uttarkashi, Pauri, Nainital, Mukteshwar, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Pithoragarh, Chamoli, Bageshwar, etc. Chief Minister BC Khanduri had to walk seven km in heavy snowfall to file his nomination papers in Pauri on January 9. Even the lower areas like Dehradun, which normally doesn’t see snowfall, witnessed unprecedented snowfall this year. According to Met department, the snowfall this year has broken the record of 130 years.
Amidst such reports, I left for Haldwani at the night of January 21 to know the state of electioneering and also what the voters feel about holding polls in such a freezing cold. As I reached Rudrapur, I started realising the depth of the cold. “Besides holding free and fair polls, it is also the responsibility of Election Commission (EC) to ensure the involvement of maximum voters in the exercise. But here in Uttarakhand it seems the EC itself wants people not to vote. It is nonsense to hold the polls in such a freezing cold. How will the people who are not able to even step out of their houses, trek miles in the snow to cast their votes,” asked my co-passenger Raju Joshi who hails from Almora.
Mohan Singh Negi, a tea vender at Haldwani Bus stand, thus sums up the weather in upper reaches of the state: “Villages have worn a deserted look for almost a month, with intermittent snow and cold winds making it tough for the villagers to venture out for even day to day activities. The shops are closed for weeks. It appears as if curfew has been imposed in the entire hill region.”
Majority of the people, I spoke, suspected the EC’s decision to hold elections in such a freezing cold. Their suspicion deepened when they came to know that the present Assembly has time till March 12 and the elections could have easily been held even in last phase. “A conspiracy in holding the polls too early cannot be ruled out. The EC is defiantly unfair,” said social activist of Nainital Chandra Prakash Naithani. When asked how it can be a conspiracy, Shri Naithani elaborates, “The BJP has good presence in hill areas of the State. As far as plain areas are concerned it is strong in Dehradun and is expected to win only a few seats in Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar districts. Since nobody is now able to canvass in hill areas, it will harm the prospects of BJP only.”
“It is gross injustice with the people of Uttarakhand by the EC to hold polls in this cold. The Congress is also involved in this game, as it does not want the people of hill areas to cast their votes,” alleged Uttarakhand Kranti Dal spokesperson Virendra Mohan Uniyal.
The elections in 2007 had recorded good polling, 63.77 per cent, as the polling was held in third week of February. The districts like Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh, which are now under heavy snowfall, had witnessed 71.69 and 63.85 per cent polling respectively. It was 59.67 per cent in Tehri Garhwal, 58.76 per cent in Dehradun, 65.61 per cent in Haridwar, 59.08 per cent in Pauri Garhwal, 62.19 per cent in Rudraprayag, 66.65 per cent in Bageshwar, 60.09 per cent in Almora, 65.77 per cent in Nainital, 72.40 per cent in Udham Singh Nagar, 61.47 per cent in Chamoli and 61.73 per cent in Champawat. Since majority of these districts are now under heavy snowfall, it is sure the percentage will come down substantially.
Noted geologist Dr BS Kotalia claims that the snowfall would continue even after January 30. “Out of the total 9744 polling booths this time, over 400 in Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh lie in the areas, which are under heavy snowfall. There are certain polling booths in Chamoli, which will require trekking of about 20 km. The voters will have to trek 42 km to reach Bahatara polling booth in Chamoli, as the shortest route to this booth is blocked due to snowfall. How the polling staff will trek in snow to reach such polling booths is another question which the EC ignored,” added Dr Kotalia.
“The seriousness of the cold and snowfall can be gauged from the fact that the EC has now sought 12 helicopters to drop election staff to the booths, which are unapproachable due to snowfall,” said Vishvas Dabur, spokesperson of BJP Election Campaign Committee.
Despite repeated requests from Chief Minister Shri Khanduri, the BJP and other political parties, the EC outrightly refused to reschedule the polling date in Uttarakhand. But it took no time to postpone the first phase (February 4) in UP just on the imagination that Muslim festival Barawafat may fall on February 4. However the State government has already notified Barawafat on February 5 and nobody had sought to reschedule the poll. “What would happen if the elections were held in Goa or Punjab in the first phase and in Uttarakhand in last phase? The EC appeared biased while taking this decision,” alleged Brijendra Prasad, a poll manager of Bahujan Samaj Party in Haridwar. What surprised people more was the rejection of a petition in this regard by the Supreme Court also.
The snowfall, cold, rain and landslides forced more election rallies cancelled than held. The initial meetings of the star campaigners like BJP chief Nitin Gadkari and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi were cancelled due to snowfall. Later, these leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, addressed several meetings only in plain areas and failed to make it to upper reaches. Shri Gadkari addressed three rallies in Ranipur, Vikasnagar and Rishikesh through mobile phone on January 18. He could reach Uttarakhand only on January 22 and addressed rallies at Someshwar, Betalghat and Chaukhutia.
Not only the hill areas, the icy wind has been sweeping across Tarai region with most cities like Dehradun, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Roorkie deprived of Sun for almost 15 days. The minimum temperature dipped to 1 or 2 degree Celsius. “In the far off hill constituencies, the campaigning has not even started till today. In Tarai region too, barring 8-9 constituencies of Haridwar district, campaigning has either been hit hard or has been going on an extremely dull due to foggy and cold weather. Neither leaders are able to step out of their homes to interact with voters nor voters are interested in meeting them,” said Narendra Singh, a campaign manager of Congress in Kichha on January 22. “Who will go out in such a bad weather to listen to these politicians who make false promises after every five years to get our votes,” said 48-year-old farmer Sardar Surender Singh in Nanakmatta.
Whatever is the public mood, the EC appears to take no lesson. It is ready for re-poll on some seats, but is adamant not to reschedule the elections. “We have made request to Indian Air Force to provide us helicopters to deal with any emergency situation arising out of inclement weather. But the elections will be held as per the announced schedule,” State Chief Electoral Officer Radha Raturi told mediapersons in Dehradun.
Despite the cold wave, the joint campaign by Baba Ramdev and team Anna added some warmth to the campaigning in plain areas. At a meeting in Dehradun on January 21, team Anna lashed out at Congress accusing it of favouring a toothless Lokpal Bill, and praised the Lokayukta Bill passed by the Khanduri government. In spite of a shoe hurled at them in Dehradun, team Anna members Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Kumar Vishwas campaigned in Haridwar, Rudrapur, Almora and Haldwani also for three days. In the campaign pamphlet they accused Congress of betraying the country on many issues.
Both the Congress and BJP are riddled with post ticket distribution revolts. BJP has so far expelled 22 leaders, including four sitting MLAs—Kedar Singh Fonia, Rajkumar, GL Shah and Anil Nautiyal. Majority of the Congress rebels are in the fray making the contest for official candidates tough. The Uttarakhand Raksha Morcha, floated by TPS Rawat, has fielded some of the disgruntled leaders from both BJP and Congress. Former CM Nityanand Swami’s daughter, Jyotsana, is contesting on the ticket of this Morcha from Lakshman Chowk, the traditional constituency of her father, after she was denied a BJP ticket. Trinmool Congress has also fielded 30 candidates making the fight tough for Congress candidates. The ruling BJP fielded nearly 36 new faces and axed about 12 of the total 36 sitting MLAs.
The impact of EC’s hawk’s eye approach is visible all over the state, as din, cacophony, graffiti, posters and banners are missing. The BJP is banking upon the clean image of Shri BC Khanduri, which appears to be clicking the voters. “Khanduriji is an honest and far-sighted person. He can lead the state perfectly” said retired BSF Inspector Shashi Prasad Panthari while attending an election rally of Shri Khanduri at Durgapuri Chowk in Kotdwar on January 22.
Since 48 per cent of the voters in the State this time are youth, the BJP has fielded 41 youth candidates. Basically this is the reason why many veteran leaders were deprived of tickets. The delimitation also appears to be benefiting the BJP. The urban seats have increased from 15 to 25 after delimitation. The BJP is seen as a formidable force in 20 of these seats. In 2007, the BJP bagged 31.9 per cent votes, while the Congress bagged 29.6 per cent. Now an opinion poll conducted by Star News has given 39 seats to BJP with 40 per cent votes.